Barnett Zumoff 4December2013 Yiddish Book Center
, Family history
, stories about ancestors
, Jewish Identity
, Yiddish language
, Yiddish learning
, Yiddish revival and activism
, Post-vernacular uses of Yiddish
, Yiddish speaker
, Other languages
, Jewish education
, United States
, Summer camp
, Yiddish personalities
, New York City
, New York
, Yosl Mlotek
, Avram Sutzkever
, Workmen's Circle
, Arbeter Ring
, Congress for Jewish Culture
, Kultur Kongres
, Forward Association
, Yiddish Daily Forward
, Jewish Daily Forward
, Camp Kinderring
, Yiddish Book Center
, National Yiddish Book Center
, Wexler Oral History Project
, Jewish culture
Dr. Barnett Zumoff, a medical doctor by profession and a Yiddish translator and activist, was interviewed by Christa Whitney, December 4, 2013, at his office at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
Producer Yiddish Book Center (Emily F.)Audio/Visual sound, color
Dr. Zumoff begins by describing his family background. His father’s father, though born in Mogilev (presently Belarus), moved to Kiev early in his life. He later started a soap factory in that city, and for a time the family prospered. After the factory “went bust,” the grandfather could not make a living in Russia and decided to emigrate to the U.S. Dr. Zumoff’s mother and father were first cousins, so they had the same ancestry.
Dr. Zumoff’s father was seventeen when he came to America. Trained as a carpenter in vocational school, he later became a cutter of shirts and joined the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) and the Workmen’s Circle. He then got a job in the composing room of the Yiddish Forward (Forverts) newspaper in 1925. Dr. Zumoff was born in 1926 and grew up in Brooklyn. The family remained relatively well-off even during the Depression.
Dr. Zumoff’s father’s native language was Yiddish. His mother was not fluent but used some expressions. The family celebrated Jewish holidays but was not strongly religious. Dr. Zumoff already understood Yiddish and expanded his knowledge at a Workmen’s Circle school and at Yiddish mitlshul (high school). One of his teachers was Adele Opatoshu, wife of novelist Joseph Opatoshu.
Dr. Zumoff’s father knew many writers, among them Mani Leib and Avrom Reyzen, but he was not a reader. Dr. Zumoff later met the poet Avrom Sutzkever.
Dr. Zumoff attended the Workmen’s Circle summer camp, Camp Kinder Ring. Children there were prohibited to visit the communist-oriented Camp Kinderland. Later, there was rapprochement with former communists, grounded in Yiddish. Dr. Zumoff’s father was involved in an unofficial anti-communist club within Workmen’s Circle. On at least one occasion Dr. Zumoff was able to visit the composing room of the Forward, which he describes.
Somewhat unintentionally, Dr. Zumoff began translating Yiddish literature into English. He began in 1983 by co-translating a play by Sholem Aleichem. His first solo translation was a book of poetry by Sutzkever. He then did a book of Holocaust-themed poetry by Jacob Glatstein. He considers Glatstein and Sutzkever his favorite Yiddish poets, with H. Leivick probably third.
Dr. Zumoff has been an active leader in many Yiddish organizations, notably the Workmen’s Circle and the association that manages the Forward. He had occasion to help Aaron Lansky get started toward founding the Yiddish Book Center.
Through the Workmen’s Circle, Dr. Zumoff developed a close relationship with Yosl and Chana Mlotek. He describes Yosl’s appearance and praises his “musical” Yiddish. Dr. Zumoff discusses his process of translating Yiddish poetry and defends his preference for retaining rhyme, if possible, in poems that rhyme in the original.
Despite his efforts, Dr. Zumoff acknowledges that the audience for Yiddish literature is very small. He recommends a list of readings for one starting in Yiddish literature. He opines that tensions within the Yiddish world are fading and cites some young people who are still creating Yiddish literature.
Asked about his religious practice, Dr. Zumoff replies that he runs a secular seder (Passover ritual meal), with no recognition of the supernatural. By his definition, many supposedly religious individuals are “fakers.” In summary, he is skeptical that there is or can be a true Yiddish renaissance, but he vows to continue fighting to preserve yidishkayt (a Jewish way of life).
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story
To cite this interview: Barnett Zumoff Oral History Interview, interviewed by Christa Whitney, Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, New York City, December 4, 2013. Video recording, https://archive.org/details/BarnettZumoff4december2013YiddishBookCenter ( [date accessed] )